Although the Bible does not explicitly lay out God’s perfect vision for education in extensive detail, the concepts are made clear. Education is certainly something that is to be valued by society as it is valued by God. This is apparent and virtually accepted by all peoples; regardless of their acknowledgment of the Creator God, everyone believes that education is important and as a society, we are to teach those who are to come next. However, it is the purpose that is disagreed upon. What is the end goal of education? The thesis of this paper is that the biblical purpose of education is to create culturally relevant, active participants in society with a foundational reverence for God.
Let’s Start at the Very Beginning
What better place is there to start than the beginning? The word of God tells us through the inspired pen of Solomon that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7). Here lies the foundation from which all knowledge must be built. It is apparent that the word “fear” here does not mean to be afraid, but instead takes on a different meaning. According to The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, fear is more akin to reverence. It is in the sense that many adults “fear” things like knives, fire, and guns without shuddering at the sight of them. Instead, these adults have a healthy respect for these items, aware of their power, and the consequences of toying with these things.
This fear of God ought to drive us to action. “The fear of God is of several kinds: superstitious, which is the fruit of ignorance; servile, which leads to abstinence from many sins through apprehension of punishment; and filial, which has its spring in love and prompts to care not to offend God and to endeavor in all things to please Him” (Unger 404). Regardless of which sense is being used, the fear of the LORD is a term that suggests practical piety and comprehends the virtues of godly character. Therefore, it is the duty of education to seek to provoke this fear of the LORD in subsequent generations. If the beginning of all knowledge lies here, then this must be the firm foundation from which all other education lies to rest.
The Beginning Points to a Goal
But if the fear of the LORD is the beginning of all knowledge, how are there so many intelligent people that lack this fear of God? In Matthew Henry’s commentary on proverbs, he argues that here the word “beginning” does not point to knowledge, but instead points to the fear of the LORD. He argues that the same phrase can be more literally translated as “giving priority to.” In this context, the term “beginning” means the chief place in time, space, and order. The contention here is not that one cannot obtain knowledge apart from God. Instead, this implies that knowledge is out of place apart from the fear of the Lord. “Of all things that are to be known this is most evident, that God is to be feared, to be reverenced, served, and worshipped; this is so the beginning of knowledge that those know nothing who do not know this” (Henry). This is to say that there is knowledge that exists outside of God, but this knowledge is worthless compared to the surpassing worth that is knowing Christ, as echoed by Paul in Philippians 3:8.
The concept of a beginning implies an end goal. If the beginning of all knowledge is a fear of the LORD, what is the end? The Bible gives us plenty of examples of how education is to be used, so long as it is based in godly wisdom, lest it turns towards foolishness. Once an individual has a solid foundation in a fear of God, the next step is to become an active, culturally relevant member of society. Moving forward, it will be useful to observe the figures of Moses, Daniel, and the Apostle Paul as case studies.
Case Study: Moses
Moses is one of the most widely-known figures of the Old Testament. This is apparent throughout the Bible, but it is worth observing what is said about him in Stephen’s speech in Acts chapter 7. It is here that Stephen states that “Moses was instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was mighty in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22). According to John MacArthur’s commentary on Acts, Moses received “the most comprehensive education in the ancient world” meaning he would have been instructed in astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, music, and art (MacArthur 208). However, the education that was received by Moses in his youth was apart from God, and it was not until his encounter with God at the burning bush that Moses was able to put his mark on the world.
Moses was an outstanding leader of the Israelite people. He showed prowess in administration and conflict resolution with the support of his fantastic zeal for God. A primary example of these skills in leadership is told in Exodus 18. Following the events that took place in order for God to bring Israel out of Egypt, Moses is acting as the sole judge of the people. Moses tells his father-in-law “when they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and his laws” (Exodus 18:16). Moses is acting as a legal head of his people, a political minister in which he is almost certainly utilizing the education he received in preparation for an important role in the Egyptian government.
However, what is notable is that this exercise of his education is also in tandem with his knowledge of “the statutes of God and his laws”. This education prepared Moses to be an active leader in his society and was all the more successful because of his reverence for God.
Case Study: Daniel
A second case study of the biblical purpose of education can be found in Daniel. Daniel is another figure who was educated by an outside kingdom, which undoubtedly did not teach him the ways of the Lord. Daniel was to be taught for three years and fed food from the king’s court (Daniel 1:5). However, because of his conviction, he refused to do this and instead abided by God’s food laws (1:8). Because of this, God granted Daniel “learning and skill in all literature and wisdom and…understanding in all visions and dreams” (1:17).
However, this wisdom was not just a slight advantage. Daniel’s wisdom or education exceeded the whole kingdom of Babylon by ten times (1:20). It was because of this wisdom that “the king gave Daniel high honors and many great gifts and made him ruler over the whole province of Babylon and chief prefect over all the wise men of Babylon” (Daniel 2:48). Daniel’s basis for his education was a foundation of fear in the LORD. Because of this fear, God blessed him and placed him in a position to use this knowledge for good.
Certainly, King Nebuchadnezzar would not have placed Daniel in charge if he had not been qualified with the education required to be apart of Babylonian society. God was able to use Daniel because he had a foundational knowledge of the fear of God and a secondary knowledge on how to be an active member of society.
Case Study: Paul
A third example is the Apostle Paul who was radically used by God to plant first-century churches and spread the Gospel throughout the known world. Paul was a “Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city (Jerusalem), educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of our fathers, being zealous for God” (Acts 22:3).
Gamaliel was “a Pharisee and celebrated doctor of the law. His learning was so eminent and his character so revered that he was called the ‘Beauty of the Law,’ and it is a saying of the Talmud that ‘since Rabban Gamaliel died the glory of the law has ceased’” (Unger 454). If this is the man that Paul was trained under, it can be said for certain that Paul was a highly educated, highly qualified individual. His great passion for God is evident throughout the New Testament, but an important showing of his education being put into practice appears in Acts chapter 17.
It is here in chapter 17 that Paul finds himself in Athens, which was a city far removed from Jerusalem culturally. “In Paul’s day, Athens had been outstripped by Alexandria and matched by Tarsus as a center of culture and learning…when the Gospel arrived in Athens, it had reached the heart of the cultured world” (Smith 257-258). Because Athens was a center for culture and learning, Paul leans not only on his knowledge of God but also on his knowledge of culture and society.
In Athens, Paul had been reasoning with the people and gained the attention of some of the philosophers of the day: Epicureans and Stoics. “Central to the Epicurean philosophy was the teaching that pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the chief ends of man. They were materialists, who, while not denying the existence of the gods, believed they did not intervene in the affairs of men” (MacArthur 131). On the other hand, “Stoic philosophers…believed self-mastery comes from being indifferent to both pleasure and pain, reaching the place where one feels nothing. In contrast to the practical atheism of the Epicureans, the Stoics were pantheists (MacArthur 131).
Knowing this, it is entirely probable that Paul specifically included Stoic and Epicurean ideas in his speech because he knew his audience (Barrett 829). Using his background knowledge of the culture of the day, Paul was able to utilize pagan thought to reason with his audience. Despite the surface similarity of Paul’s arguments to stoic ideas of a transcendent god, much too big to dwell in manmade images, he departs in critical ways from their philosophy. The power of Paul’s speech is that he maximizes the impression of agreement with his audience without compromising his own worldview.
In addition to Paul’s use of his audience’s own philosophy, Paul goes on to quote secular writings that this audience would have been familiar with. When Paul says “for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’” (Acts 17:28), he is quoting Epimenides of Crete. This quote would have particularly spoken to the Stoics because they connected life with movement and movement with being, but they did not put these three together (Barrett 847).
Later on in the verse, Paul quotes the poet Aratus saying “For we are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28). Here Paul is using their own poets’ words against them in an attack on idolatry and an argument for the one true God (Barrett 848).
Paul’s reasoning with the Athenians is a prime example of the biblical purpose for education. The Apostle Paul is fully convicted in his fear of God and uses his knowledge of culture to be an engaged member of society, spreading the knowledge of Christ to others.
The Goal of Education: A Life of Service to God
Although not explicitly stated, the biblical purpose of education is to create a foundational fear of God on which to create culturally relevant, active participants in society. This can be seen in the life of Moses, whose education prepared him to be an exceptional leader of the people of Israel, in the life of Daniel, whose education prepared him to serve God in a high ranking position in Babylonian government, and in Paul, who used his cultural knowledge to fulfill his ultimate purpose of spreading the gospel and setting an example for every evangelist who came after him.
Christians should look toward the examples of these men when they seek to educate their children to fear God and participate in the world around them.